England put faith in Hope and glory to spread women's gospel

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The Independent Football

For Beckham, Owen and Gerrard, read the likes of Faye White, Rachel Yankey and Kelly Smith. The names may not exactly roll off the tongue to the same extent but as England's élite male players embark on a well-earned rest, for the national women's team the next fortnight represents a vital opportunity to showcase what the Football Association insists is the country's fastest-growing female sport.

For Beckham, Owen and Gerrard, read the likes of Faye White, Rachel Yankey and Kelly Smith. The names may not exactly roll off the tongue to the same extent but as England's élite male players embark on a well-earned rest, for the national women's team the next fortnight represents a vital opportunity to showcase what the Football Association insists is the country's fastest-growing female sport.

It may have gone unnoticed but the Women's European Championship, kicking off tomorrow night at the City of Manchester Stadium with the host nation taking on outsiders Finland and Sweden meeting Denmark, is the biggest single football event in Britain since Euro '96. Hope Powell's team take centre stage in their bid to turn years of hard work behind the scenes into genuine achievement on the pitch.

For once, organisers insist that profit is not the main priority. Individual tickets cost just £5 - half that for concessions - while group bookings can secure seats from£1. "We want the stadiums to be as full as we can get them," said the tournament director Andrew Halstead.

Ever since their appearance in the final of the inaugural tournament in 1984, when they lost to Sweden on penalties, England have failed to even come close to a repeat performance. They failed to qualify for the 2003 World Cup and were knocked out in the group stage of the last European Championship.

Yet Powell's squad go into tomorrow's opening fixture on the back of a 10-match unbeaten run, including wins over Italy and the former world champions Norway. The England captain Faye White says that the women's game will never have a better chance of self-promotion.

"The commitment, passion and desire is there, not only to do well for their country but to take women's football to a new level," said the experienced Arsenal defender. White says the improvement in results over the last few years is mainly down to physical factors. "We could always compete on a technical level but now we're a lot fitter."

Professionalism in the women's game is still very much in its infancy, at least in this country. Like most of her team-mates, White has a secondary job - in her case as an Arsenal coach - and says that trying to draw comparisons with the men is holding down the credibility of her sport.

The FA hopes the tournament will leave a lasting legacy. "This is the biggest participation female sport in the country," said Halstead, the FA operations director. "When we talk about legacy, we don't mean legacy as in bricks and buildings but raising the profile of the sport."

Powell, too, is talking up the legacy ticket but has avoided all the expectation that inevitably accompanies the host nation. "It is our job to get out of the group stage and take it from there," Powell said. "Four years ago, the final squad of 20 picked itself. This year, a few players have been left bitterly disappointed. That shows the progress we have made. I've got a good mix of experience, youth and talent. But it's not about me. It's about the future of the wider game in England."

Group Matches: Group A: Tomorrow Sweden v Denmark (5pm) (Bloomfield Road, Blackpool); England v Finland (7.0) (City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester); 8 June Denmark v England (6.0) (Ewood Park, Blackburn); Sweden v Finland (8.0) (Blackpool); 11 June England v Sweden (6.0) (Blackburn); Finland v Denmark (6.0) (Blackpool). Group B: 6 June Germany v Norway (6.0) (Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington); France v Italy (8.0) (Deepdale, Preston North End); 9 June Italy v Germany (5.15) (Preston North End); France v Norway (8.0) (Warrington); 12 June Germany v France (3.0) (Warrington Wolves RLFC); Norway v Italy (3.0) (Preston North End). Semi-Finals: SF1 15 June Winner B v Runner-Up A (6.30) (Preston North End FC); SF2 16 June Runner-Up B v Winner A (6.30) (Warrington); Final: 19 June Winner SF1 v Winner SF2 (3.15) (Blackburn)

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